Saturday, November 29, 2008

For Your Ears Only: Doctor Who: The Genocide Machine

Link to The Genocide Machine at
To wrap up Who week, I’ll take a look at one of the good Doctor’s adventures in another medium. During the period wherein the show was still canceled, an independent audio production company called Big Finish Productions obtained the license to make new DOCTOR WHO audio stories on CD. They’ve continued the Doctor’s audio adventures to this day, featuring a number of past Doctors and a few alternates. An early entry in Big Finish’s oeuvre, THE GENOCIDE MACHINE is quite fun, recalling traditional runarounds while taking advantage of the extra scope afforded by audio theatre.

The story takes place on the rainforest-laden world of Kar-Charrat, home to the greatest and most comprehensive library in the known universe, containing just about every piece of information in existence- and so hidden away, its location known only to “time-sensitives.” (No idea if Steven Moffat heard this before writing “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead” for the new series, but everyone’s just taking from Borges at this point.) The Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) has arrived with his companion Ace (Sophie Aldred) to return some overdue books, and is just in time to see Chief Librarian Elgin (Bruce Montague) unveil a new wetworks data storage system wherein all the information in the library is kept in a tank of water, and can be accessed at the touch of a button. In the meantime, a group of mercenaries investigating a ziggurat elsewhere in the jungle have been wiped out by robotic killers, leaving only one survivor (Louise Faulkner). It quickly becomes apparent that the Daleks have been lying in wait on this remote world, waiting for their chance to break into the library and access the data store (knowledge is power!), and the Doctor’s arrival has given them just the right opportunity. In the meantime, everyone’s hearing mysterious voices in the rain.

I genuinely think one of the great strengths of audio theatre as a medium is its ability to quickly invoke atmosphere and a sense of place. Setting this story in a rainforest, and making water and rain major elements, makes for a good level of intensity; we are instantly thrown into an alien environment, and the constant rain creates a nicely oppressive atmosphere during the outdoor scenes. The sound effects work is pretty sophisticated, handling a number of unusual elements.

Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred are both in good form here, the latter getting some very good scenes when the Daleks try to use her as a way of infiltrating the library. As Bev Tarrant, Louise Faulkner actually sounds just a bit like Aldred which can be confusing, but she’s pretty convincing on her own. Bruce Montague’s delivery is more theatrical, and I actually briefly thought Michael Gough was playing Elgin, which I suppose is a compliment. You’d think the Dalek voices would get old in what is often a dialogue-heavy medium, but this isn’t a problem for whatever reason.

The story seems padded at times, though oddly enough this makes it easier to follow if your attention drifts. However there are still some good twists and turns, particularly involving the nature of the library and the Daleks’ attempts to access the wetworks database. There’s also a running gag involving a mostly-silent cataloguer (voiced by director Nicholas Briggs) that is arguably overplayed, but there are some good payoffs.

THE GENOCIDE MACHINE is part of an arc of Dalek stories collected under the “Dalek Empire” concept, but it works as a standalone. Tucker and Briggs and everyone else involved do a fine job and it’s a fairly sophisticated bit of audio theatre, accomplishing some interesting effects and handling a twisty plot without ever leaving the listener behind. I need to look at more of Big Finish’s stuff in the future; rest assured, they’re worth keeping an ear out for.

Grade: B+

Friday, November 28, 2008

Academy of the Underrated: Doctor Who: The Movie

Doctor Who: The Movie on R2 DVD from Amazon
With DOCTOR WHO’s popularity now at an all time high, it’s interesting to look at a period when its hopes for the future seemed to rest on a long shot. The 1996 DOCTOR WHO television movie was an American co-production between Universal and the BBC for the Fox Network, and intended as a backdoor pilot for a potential new series. It was not a reboot, but a straight continuation of the classic show, and is still considered canon for whatever that’s worth. Obviously it was not the hit its producers wanted, and making the thing dependent on an American audience was probably a bad idea to start with, but despite falling into obscurity somewhat, the DOCTOR WHO TVM (as it’s sometimes referred to) has a lot to recommend it. It’s atmospheric, good-looking, and fun, and though the plot is twisty and coincidence-laden the whole production has too much charm to let that be a major problem. It’s gotten the reputation of being an “Americanization” of the concept but I think that’s being too harsh.

The Doctor (first seen in the guise of Sylvester McCoy) starts off being entrusted to take the remains of his old enemy, the Master, back to their home world of Gallifrey after his apparent execution on Skaro. (The arguments over why the Daleks would let the Doctor do anything or put the Master on trial to begin with echo widely throughout fandom, but let’s keep moving shall we?) However, the Master hasn’t so much died as turned into a slithering amorphous thing, and he manages to short out the TARDIS, which crash-lands in San Francisco on December 30th, 1999. The Doctor gets shot by a street gang as soon as he exits the TARDIS (insert your own social commentary), and Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso), former Chinatown street gang member (former by virtue of his entire gang getting gunned down just prior) accompanies him to the hospital.

However, at the hospital, there’s a lot of confusion over a patient whose chest X-ray shows two hearts and seems to react very negatively to anesthetic, and in the confusion the Doctor dies. He regenerates into a younger body (Paul McGann) but with quite a few gaps in his memory, and he latches onto one face he remembers: Dr. Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook), the heart surgeon who was in charge when he croaked. She thinks she’s dealing with a crazy man until he pulls a surgical probe out of his chest, and even then she’s not really convinced. In the meantime, the Master has possessed the body of an EMT (Eric Roberts), but his human form is not long for this world, so he cons and hypnotizes Chang Lee into helping him with a plan to use the Eye of Harmony, the TARDIS’ power source, to steal the Doctor’s body and all his remaining regenerations. The side effect? Having the Eye open during this procedure will eventually suck the entire planet through it, and wouldn’t you know, the deadline is midnight on New Year’s Eve.

So, yeah. Screenwriter Matthew Jacobs came up with a plotline that ultimately was too big for a 90 minute film, and a few details were sacrificed in trimming it down. There was an apparently an explanation for why the Master becomes a snake creature and how the Daleks were involved and so on, but the plot we see on screen is just a tad convoluted and relies a lot on coincidence. Some details get lost in the wash- the Doctor walks through a window and says he’s lost 20 pounds in 20 minutes both as a result of the Eye being open, but these elements of the Earth’s impending doom never come up again. There aren’t any plot holes of the “this really cannot happen given what we’ve seen so far” variety- the film doesn’t break its own laws as far as I can tell- but there’s an awful lot of handwaving involved.

The film also introduced a few controversial elements to the new WHO mix. The Doctor hints that he’s half-human, something that was intended to be a much bigger issue in executive producer Philip David Segal’s original series pitch- here it’s not even clear whether he’s serious, but the Master appears to think he is. It’s an element that might have been a problem had this gone to a series, but as such it’s just a weird quirk. Somewhat more controversial at the time was the Doctor’s romantic chemistry with Grace- up to that point he had been portrayed as mostly asexual (despite having a granddaughter), and though it never gets developed any further than a John Steed/Emma Peel type flirtation and a couple of good kisses, it was shocking at the time (as was the British press’ mistranslation of a phrase in the script, “Grace bonks the Doctor.”) The romance, plus a scene where the Master and Chang Lee in an ambulance pursue a motorcycle-riding Doctor and Grace, led to cries of “Americanization”, even though both the writer and director are British and the whole thing was shot in Vancouver. In the interim, though, the new series has taken the concepts of Doctor/companion romance and high speed action even farther, and though the TVM does some catering to American sensibilities, it doesn’t blot out the show’s roots.

Indeed, I remember that when this was broadcast, my biggest concern was whether they’d get the “feel” of DOCTOR WHO right. But from the very first scenes, where the Doctor relaxes in a charmingly steampunk TARDIS control room to an Eartha Kitt record, the atmosphere is dead on. Throughout the film maintains a great balance of whimsy and dread, with enough of the surreal to remind us that we’re still in the same universe as the old series. It helps that the dialogue is fairly snappy and clever even when the plot comes up short; there’s some very nice banter, and a spirit of good humor that makes the goofy moments more palatable.

The great tragedy of the TV movie’s poor ratings performance (in the US at least, where it was up against stiff May sweeps competition) is that this is as much as we’ve ever seen of Paul McGann as the Doctor (though not the last we heard, as he did several Big Finish audio productions afterwards.) As short on screen time as he is, McGann makes his mark pretty strongly; his Doctor is brighter than his immediate predecessors (McCoy had been a humorous Doctor to start but darkened near the end), capable of almost childlike wonder but possessing the intelligence and presence of a 900-year-old Time Lord. (The filmmakers also gave him the interesting ability to know a bit too much about everyone he meets.) Rumors often circulate among fans that McGann might appear in the future, possibly in a flashback to the offscreen Time War, but so far no dice. Eric Roberts’ version of the Master is high on the camp scale, but that seems to be the nature of the part. Daphne Ashbrook has a couple of shrill moments but is mostly charming, and Yee Jee Tso does pretty well; neither of these two were signed on in the event a series was ordered, but it’s interesting to think what they might have been like as companions.

More expensive than the average Fox Tuesday night movie, DOCTOR WHO has great production values and appealing visuals (with effects supervised by Tony Dow- THAT Tony Dow, yes). Director Geoffrey Sax composes all sorts of interesting shots, usually around themes of eyes and other circular patterns, and the use of colors- mostly blue and orangish-yellow- is striking. When the old series went off-air in 1989, it was still stuck in an increasingly outdated and stagey method of filming; low budgets and tight schedules meant fewer camera setups and fewer takes. During the long hiatus/cancellation, drama TV and its bastard cousin genre programming adopted a more cinematic style, and this film was really our first hint of what WHO would have to look like in the modern era. The TVM also benefits from a lush score by John Debney, John Sponslor, and Louis Febre; I have to confess I’m one of the few fans of the unusually superheroic rendition of
the classic theme.

DOCTOR WHO aired once on Fox, didn’t do well enough to merit a follow-up, and has since pretty much vanished in the US apart from a couple of cable airings. Universal still owns the film in part, whereas Warner Home Video handles the BBC’s WHO releases in this country, hence nobody’s made much effort to get this on R1 DVD. The project may have been doomed from the start; a DOCTOR WHO series made to the visual standards of US television in the mid-90s would be very expensive, what with the changing locations every week. After the production became a backdoor pilot instead of a proper series opener, Universal decided it would have to get a pretty big audience share to merit taking things any further (at this point they still had SLIDERS, a slightly cheaper spin on the whole “dimensional travel” concept), and of course it didn’t. Some have blamed the reliance on past continuity, spending so much time with McCoy’s Doctor instead of the proper star, etc., but really, this aired once and never again; there was no time for word of mouth to have an effect, positive or negative. The film received good ratings in the UK, and the BBC wisely decided that any future attempts at reviving WHO would be directed chiefly at that audience. Took them 9 years to try again, but I understand there was some sort of legal thing.

It’s interesting to look back on the DOCTOR WHO TV movie and see it as a taste of what was to come: faster and often looser storytelling, stylish visuals, a bit more action, and a finally-not-asexual Doctor. But I also love it for what it is, a high-spirited adventure about defying death, turning back time, and taking chances, all things that the good Doctor does regularly. It’s a shame this couldn’t be much more than a footnote in the show’s history, but at least it’s an entertaining one.

Written by Matthew Jacobs
Directed by Geoffrey Sax

Grade: A-

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Random Who Report: Genesis of the Daleks (1975)

Genesis of the Daleks on DVD from Amazon
A late start is better than no start at all, or at least that’s what I tell myself. And I’m starting with a classic: GENESIS OF THE DALEKS, one of the best known Who stories from one of its best-loved eras, and a strong candidate for the title of best Who story ever. Not only does Terry Nation come up with a compelling origin story for WHO’s most popular monsters, he uses the show’s traditional corridors-and-cliffhangers structure as a vehicle for difficult moral and ethical questions. It’s genuinely great science fiction drama, on a level not often expected of a show that’s made its reputation as light entertainment.

The Doctor (Tom Baker) and his companions Harry (Ian Marter) and Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) are pulled away from their most recent adventure by the Time Lords, who forsee the genocidal Daleks destroying all life in the universe and want the Doctor to destroy them before they are created (or alter their development so they don’t turn out so evil.) Our heroes are unceremoniously dumped on the Dalek home planet of Skaro, in the midst of a centuries-old war between its original inhabitants, the Kaleds and the Thals. Soon after arriving they are split up by a gas attack. Sarah falls in with some rather normal-looking mutants (called Mutos) before being captured by the Thals, while the Doctor and Harry end up in Kaled territory, where they meet the wizened and sinister scientist Davros (Michael Wisher). Officially he and a bunch of other scientific elites are developing weapons to help win the war, but Davros’ real project is to develop a travel machine for the hideous mutant embryos that the war’s chemical weaponry will force the Kaleds to evolve into. The resulting creations are the first Daleks, armored killers under Davros’ control, and he aspires to make them the dominant life form in the universe. Not only does the Doctor have to try and put a stop to his plans, but he has to keep his friends from being caught in the crossfire as the war between the two races reaches its brutal end.

A child of World War Two, Nation often said that he had based the Daleks on his memories of the Nazi threat, and so it’s appropriate that for their origin story he goes to World War One. The first images of soldiers in gasmasks running across barren fields and ducking into trenches, in a war that has devolved into two domes shooting at each other across a poisonous wasteland, give the story an immediate resonance. It’s not a straight allegory for the rise of fascism in Europe, but echoes here and there (especially pertaining to eugenics) keep popping up. Nation never does explain how the entire population of the planet got reduced to two domes that happen to be right next to each other, but I’ll take it as convenience. (Similarly, the Mutos don’t really look deformed, just sort of rugged- but then that may be a deliberate callback to Nazi standards of racial purity.)

This is a grim story, moreso than average for the series- producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes would get a reputation for dark and scary shows very quickly, but this is unusually apocalyptic even for them. We know horrible things are about to happen, and though the show’s family viewing slot prevents it from going too far, it’s unusually frank in showing the horrors of war and genocide.

Of course, this is still DOCTOR WHO- it’s not without humor, and Tom Baker’s moody take on the character allows him to deliver quips and wrestle with the gravity of his situation. Indeed, Terry Nation- whose first Dalek story, the show’s second serial overall, helped establish the conventional formula- tended to write traditional runarounds, and in a way that’s what this is. The characters are separated early, they meet opposing groups and so explain the background and conflict, and have a succession of escapes, captures, run-ins with monsters, deathtrap evasions and so on as the larger plot unfolds. GENESIS OF THE DALEKS features all these things, especially since it’s a six part story and needs to reach that length somehow; there’s some padding around episodes two and/or three, and to be brutally honest I’ve yet to come across a six parter that doesn’t have this problem.

However, the constant thrills and spills actually provide a nice backdrop to the major conflicts of the story. Because there’s no one group on Skaro who are clearly the good guys, the Doctor has to actively search for their better natures, to convince them that a greater evil will arise from the immediate good of ending the war. Several characters are faced with making sacrifices in the name of greater good, whether it be leaving a friend behind or letting an enemy live. And ultimately the Doctor has to face up to the reality that if he destroys the Daleks, he commits genocide.

And then there’s Davros, one of the finest villains on the entire show. He’s a focused megalomaniac, interested not so much in temporal or political power as in a kind of immortality through his creations, bred to survive by exterminating all other life. It’s terrifying to see the Doctor finally pitted against someone as clever as he is, without any ethical barriers whatsoever, and he manages to terrify nearly everyone working for him, not that he cares. Visually he bears a weird resemblance to the near-dead grandfather in Tobe Hooper’s TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, and his shriveled visage and grating, near-Dalek voice are the stuff of nightmares. The production design is appropriately monochromatic, and though there is a truly laughable “attack” by giant and clearly immobile mutant clams (one of Davros’ failed experiments, though probably good eatin’), mostly the production values are pretty strong.

For most of its run, both old-school and new, DOCTOR WHO has been content to be straightforward sci-fi entertainment for the whole family, and that’s just fine. Doing that right is an artistic achievement in itself. But GENESIS OF THE DALEKS uses the familiar formula of the show, and the marquee value of the Daleks themselves, to explore some serious questions of morality and to expose the most insidious kinds of evil- the dislike for the unlike, the desire for control and security, the dehumanization of war. It makes its point with only a little preachiness, and on top of that it simply shows the traditional structures and conventions of DOCTOR WHO at their most effective. If you want to see the show at its best, this is where to look.

Written by Terry Nation
Produced by Philip Hinchcliffe
Directed by David Maloney

Grade: A+

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Announcing Doctor Who Week!

Today (or yesterday if you're reading this in the UK) marks the 45th anniversary of DOCTOR WHO, the world's longest-running science fiction programme and possibly my very favorite show.

To celebrate, I'll be running a few WHO-centric pieces at the site, and if anyone else wants to join in the fun, let me know in comments or e-mail and I'll link you. Obviously the fact that this is Thanksgiving week makes it slightly more difficult than average, but I'll try to get at least three big pieces up. So stick around and have a jelly baby!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

In Theaters: Quantum of Solace

Quantum of Solace poster from
I came away from QUANTUM OF SOLACE with a very unusual reaction. I didn’t like the action sequences that much, but everything else worked. This is not what the makers of the latest James Bond film were likely aiming for, and not ideally how the series should work, and yet it does. Marc Foster’s inexperience in the action genre may be to blame, but the Bond series has often chosen talent from strange places, and in this case it mostly works. The film is a step down from CASINO ROYALE, but it flows very well as a direct sequel.

In fact, this entry picks up right where the last film left off. Bond has captured one of the top ranking members of Quantum, a secret organization that both employed the lovely Vesper Lynd and killed her. Bond insists that he’s not doing this to avenge the woman he loved, but when a double agent in MI6 kills Bond’s quarry before he can say anything, he tries to find higher links in the chain for a mix of personal and professional reasons. Soon he runs across a Quantum plan to stage a coup in Bolivia to return a vile dictator to power, in exchange for which they’ll receive exclusive land rights over a seemingly worthless patch of desert. The rumor is oil, which interests several world governments for good and for ill. Of course, both the U.S. and Britain need oil and decide they’re going to back the evil guy so long as he’ll give them what they want, and that, in addition to Bond’s increasingly high body count, prompts MI6 to prompt M (Judi Dench again) to try and pull him back. But in the meantime, he’s also run across Camille (Olga Kurylenko), sometime-girlfriend to trusted entrepreneur, creepy Quantum bigwig, and Roman Polanski lookalike Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), and she’s got a vendetta of her own.

At some point somebody is going to have to sit down with modern action directors and ask them why they feel compelled to wave the camera around to create pretty streaks of color that don’t actually tell you what’s going on. The cynical answer is that fast edits and shaky cameras are needed to hook today’s audience with their short attention spans and iPods and so on, but I’m not sure that really explains it. For one thing, nobody’s actually tested this assumption. I can’t recall any well-promoted, widely-released action film that flopped because it used longer takes and a tripod. (I don’t remember if IRON MAN was this jittery, doesn’t seem like it, though.) Secondly, this approach, as used in this film, ends up being fairly inefficient. The really blurry and jumpy shots don’t convey information very well, and if you cut them from the assembly what’s left would probably flow a lot better.

A personal theory of mine is that the action movie is entering an impressionist phase, where conveying what’s happening is not quite as important as imparting a sense of disorientation in the viewer. But I think that backfires too. I was able to follow the action in QUANTUM OF SOLACE, at least in a general sense, but the jumpy edits and occasional blurriness made me feel more distanced if anything. There are big stunts and lots of things blowing up spectacularly, but I felt I was missing the full impact because the framing, the timing, the focus was always just a little bit off. Again, this may just be down to inexperience on Foster’s part. Still, it’s a trend I hope the Bond series moves away from as quickly as it can. The tripod is your friend.

Fortunately, my disappointment with the style of filming subsided soon enough as I began to get caught up in the story. In keeping with the more realistic tone set by CASINO ROYALE, the villains’ diabolical masterplan involves not world domination but the exploitation of an already frequently dumped upon people, and all the sordid dealings that the major world powers make to keep their countries on top. Bond follows a solid trail of evidence in between making people wish they’d never been born, and we get the familiar jetting between exotic locales and decadent high society events. There’s a lot more of the traditional Bond here than some critics have alleged; the formula has been tweaked, but it hasn’t exactly been thrown out.

Daniel Craig is once again in complete control of the picture; not only does he have the swagger and bravado that Bond needs, but he manages some fairly sophisticated playing. You’re never quite sure just how hung up he is on Vesper, or at least how consciously he’s letting what happened to her guide his actions. His is not an overt form of brooding- you can tell something’s going on beneath the facade but you can’t be completely sure of what. What’s still most surprising are the moments when he allows himself to have fun; Bond smiling is a disarming sight. Dame Judi Dench plays against him terrifically, even when they’re not in the same room. As for the new Bond girl- well, she’s very pretty and not a bad actress, as far as I can tell. But the producers have made an obvious mistake. Midway through the film we are introduced to Fields (first name Strawberry, though she never says it), a young redheaded agent who’s been sent on her first field assignment to escort Bond back to London. Gemma Arterton plays her as cute, energetic, clever, and frankly much more appealing than Camille, but because Camille is exotic (i.e. non-British) and has a tortured past of some kind, she’s in the lead female role while Fields, well, you know what happens to the secondary Bond girl most of the time. Complete waste of potential there, it must be said.

QUANTUM OF SOLACE is an interesting next act in Bond’s current story, and I’m definitely interested in what will happen next. As flawed as the film is in places, it gets enough right to make you think the franchise is still in good hands. Maybe they need to stop serving Red Bull to the editors and someone needs to look into making Ms. Arterton the next Moneypenny or something, but I enjoyed myself so no need to nitpick too closely. The style’s a bit tarnished, but the substance is there.

Based on characters created by Ian Fleming
Screenplay by Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade
Directed by Marc Forster

Grade: B

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Not A Review: Fling

FLING movie poster
I cannot review FLING. Well, I don’t think I can, going by the guidelines for critics that Roger Ebert laid down a while back. Granted, I did not technically have anything to do with the film. However, Ben Waters, the co-editor, is my brother, while director and co-writer/producer John Stewart Muller is a longtime friend of his and also someone I know fairly well. I had a free pass to the film’s Midwest premiere, met the crew and some of the cast, etc. So you see the problem. (It can be argued that I am not really a professional critic, but I try to assume the semblance of one at times.)

Here’s what I think I can do. I can say that I, personally, enjoyed it. I can’t say why, or give the kind of formal support to my thesis that a proper review does. Also, bear in mind that I’d had a few drinks and may, theoretically, have been favorably disposed to begin with. I’ve only seen it the one time so I have no idea how it looks when one is sober. So, what I’m going to do after the cut is describe the film in the most neutral terms possible. No judgement calls whatsoever. What I describe may be enough for you to make up your mind, but I will not push the issue one way or the other. Okay, here goes.

FLING is the story of a couple, Mason (Steve Sandvoss), a novelist, and Sam (Courtney Ford), a budding fashion designer. They’re both in their twenties and living together, but have an open relationship; the film starts at a wedding wherein Mason meets up with Olivia
(Shoshana Bush), an 18-year-old girl who knew him when she was much younger, while Sam hooks up with old boyfriend James (Brandon Routh.) James is somewhat old fashioned, and skeptical of the strength of Sam and Mason’s relationship; at the same time he’s never quite gotten over her, and the two start drifting closer together, even as she’s turned off by his disdain for the way she lives. Meanwhile, Mason has some good and bad times with Olivia, and tension between him and Sam mounts as they wonder whether they can keep this going.

A lot of people have sex in this film, as you might imagine, but the presentation is restrained; there’s no nudity and the sex scenes tend to fade out early. (The film has yet to be rated.) It’s not really the subject of the film the way you would expect, though the characters are obviously leading very sexually active lifestyles. (Quick question: Can you actually put qualifiers on “sexually active”? It seems to be used as a binary.)

The reason this had a Kansas City premiere (though it’s had premieres elsewhere and has done a few festivals, and I actually meant to ask about wider distribution but forgot) is that it was almost entirely shot here. Those who know the city will recognize many locations and it’s getting more coverage than usual because this doesn’t happen very often. The upside of this is that filming in KC is still fairly cheap, so they were able to shoot at some fairly prominent and upscale places. Needless to say, I was in Columbia when this took place and had the opportunity to witness none of it. Such is my life.

The camera-work is hand held, though not hugely jumpy. Note that the IMDB still lists this under “Lie to Me”, though that title was changed because it’s being used for a TV series on FOX coming up this midseason.

And I’ve run out of things to say. Obviously since people I know are involved with this film AND it’s their first big thing I would hope that many of you see this movie, or at least keep an eye out. So I’ll just leave it at that. I liked FLING a lot, but I’m biased.

Further information on where it is and will be is available on the movie's website.

Written by John Stewart Muller & Laura Boersma
Directed by John Stewart Muller

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Bookshelf: Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

For no particular reason I’ve taken an interest in some of the fantasy settings for DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS and its various permutations. The differences between them are often subtle and incredibly geekish, but the DRAGONLANCE saga caught my attention as a unique blend of creativity and marketing. The original trilogy of books that I’m reading- DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT, DRAGONS OF WINTER NIGHT, and DRAGONS OF SPRING DAWNING, all by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman- were tied in with a series of modules released for the game around the same time in the mid-eighties, detailing a very linear, story-driven campaign based on one that Weis, Hickman, and others had run earlier.

So DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT is essentially the professionally published and bestselling equivalent of someone’s online game fiction, and yet it’s not bad. I’ve mentioned in the past that I don’t like how the fantasy genre is dominated by Extruded Fantasy Product that always revolves around a diverse group of characters from every corner of the author’s fantasy world going on a quest which takes them to every other corner of the author’s fantasy world in order to collect plot tokens and defeat the Supreme Evil, but in retrospect I don’t really hate the form itself. Only a handful of authors have ever done anything genuinely great with it, but a good EFP can be fun reading, and DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT works on that level. It’s surprisingly fast paced, given its length, ably juggles a good cast list, and though it has more than its fair share of silly moments they don’t drag the whole thing down too much.

It begins, appropriately enough, in an Inn, where a woman named Goldmoon, in possession of a staff with magical healing properties, is hiding from her tribe with her lover Riverwind, whom she tried to save from execution. Needless to say, dark forces are after her and the magical artifact her boyfriend obtained from a lost city under mysterious circumstances, and she falls in with a group of seasoned adventurers who have been looking for information on the old gods of Krynn, gods forgotten after a great cataclysm but still at work in the land. The staff is obviously connected to them somehow (healing magic was lost when they went out of fashion), and the disappearance of a couple of constellations from the sky portends a new cataclysm on the way. So our band of adventurers- Tanis, our somewhat moody half-elven protagonist; Caramon, a rough and tumble swordsman; Raistlin, his sickly wizard brother cursed by his studies; Flint, your requisite gruff dwarf; Tasslehoff Burrfoot, a kender (essentially kleptomaniac hobbits); Sturm, formerly a knight of Solamnia, and our two sort-of-Native-American-but-she’s-blonde-somehow refugees- set off up north to find the lost city wherein Riverwind first stumbled across the magic item in hopes of discovering more about what’s going on. And yes, there are dragons.

Stories like this are hard to review, because while the plot structure is pure Joseph Campbell by way of J.R.R. Tolkien, it’s the details which make every story stand out. The setting here is quite elaborate, with its old gods and new theocrats, lost orders, dragon-like humanoids who turn to stone when killed, primitive “gully” dwarves, and a number of details that just sort of lurk in the background. There are also, as you may have noticed, more than a few characters to keep track of; they’re very distinct and broadly drawn, so it’s not hard to remember who is who, but it’s still a big cast and they get kind of scattered at times. (This is why Dungeon Masters try not to split the party.)

The plot rambles along in a way that one might expect from something adapted from an RPG campaign; it’s episodic, but each episode is strongly connected. One distinguishing element of the story for better and for worse is a certain level of silliness. Take for example the gully dwarves, a friendly group of underground dwellers our heroes meet on their journey through the lost city. They are primitive, childlike, and most importantly, stupid. They can’t count above “two”, they speak in pidgin babytalk, and they’re so lacking in apparent common sense that it seems hard to believe they exist as a civilization. Obviously, this is fantasy, and the dwarves are funny at times, but they wear on the nerves a bit, as does Fizban, an overly comic wizard who can never remember how to cast spells.

Closest to damningly, though, and I regret having to spoil anything so I’ll try to be vague but skip over this paragraph if you insist anyway, in rather quick succession we see two characters seemingly killed decidedly dead only to come back the next chapter. The very next chapter. Now, I am all in favor of resurrecting a fictional character if it’s at all necessary or entertaining, but if you’re going to do this you should at least have a suitable period of anticipation wherein we think the character might actually be gone. Gandalf at least had the decency to wait an entire book before his reemergence.

Some of the silliness extends to the characters. Tasslehoff’s ever-so-whimsical compulsion to take things seems like a contrivance because the authors were afraid to make any of the heroes morally ambiguous, and frankly all the main character notes get pounded on repeatedly without a lot of variation over 400 pages. Goldmoon loves Riverwind, Tanis is conflicted about his heritage, Caramon has the hots for a fetching barmaid, Sturm used to be a knight, and Raistlin is bitter. They’re never quite three dimensional, though they’re not without charm.

I can’t say I dislike this book, though, even if it does feel rather inconsequential for the first act of an epic trilogy. It’s got a lot of neat ideas, and even if they don’t all congeal they still give you the feeling that this is a genuine fantasy world and not just a marketing ploy. But the real sign that this book worked for me was that I picked up the sequel without any thought. Weis and Hickman have hooked me, for better or worse.

Grade: B

Monday, November 03, 2008

Vote, vote, vote!

Tomorrow is Election Day in the US, for the None of you who don't know already.

Remember to vote, if you haven't already. There's going to be a high turnout, so expect to wait in line. Bring something to distract you during that time.

I try not to be too political on this blog. That said, I personally am backing Senator Barack Obama. I think he will actually change some of the policies that have gotten us into trouble, while McCain seems reluctant to do so, and has run his campaign (or allowed it to be run) in a very negative and divisive fashion. Some of the GOP's rhetoric has gotten downright anti-intellectual, even pissing off a few conservatives as a result; as an outright geek, I can't help but feel targetted.

If you're in California, whoever you favor for President or Congress or dogcatcher, be sure to vote No on Proposition 8. Equality is good, and marriage rights aren't just a symbolic thing. Plus, if you outlaw gay marriage, you will make George Takei angry, and that doesn't seem to be a very good idea:

So, vote. See you afterwards.